3 Top Alternatives to Brainstorming to Have Better Ideas

I’d like to introduce three creativity techniques, which come from some of the teams that lead innovation in today’s world.

My goal is not to force your organisation adopt any of these methods. I just want to open your eyes to considering a new way of generating new ideas.

You’ll see these alternatives to brainstorming have a few things in common. It’s not a coincidence if all these teams are super creative.


Note-and-Vote with Google’s Design Sprint

Jake Knapp, design partner at Google Ventures, encourage to stop brainstorming and start sprinting. He’s at the origin of Google’s Design Sprint. Here’s how

The big idea of the sprint is to take a small team, clear the schedule for a week, and rapidly progress from problem to tested solution. On Monday, you make a map of the problem. On Tuesday, each individual sketches solutions. On Wednesday, you decide which sketches are strongest. On Thursday, you build realistic a prototype. And on Friday, you test that prototype with five target customers. It’s like fast-forwarding into the future to see your finished product in the market.

Instead of brainstorming, Google Ventures focuses on a two-step process—the ‘Note-and-Vote‘. It helps avoid cognitive biases that emerge from brainstorming, like groupthink.

Here’s how to implement the Note-and-Vote process:

Step #1: Participants think individually rather than as a group. (This prevents having someone break the flow of ideas.)

Step #2: The team members vote for the best ideas, keeping in mind that at the end only one person will make the final call.

If you want to learn more about Google’s alternative to brainstorming, you should get yourself a copy of Sprint.


Encourage independent thinking and debating

At Fahrenheit 212, a New York-based innovation consulting firm, Mark Payne also dismisses Osborn’s brainstorming sessions ‘where ideas are celebrated’ and rooms are filled with ‘Post-it notes rather than real value’. In How to Kill a Unicorn, Payne explains their creative process:

The players on the team are sent off their separate ways to think independently about the problem on the table, and then regroup to fire ideas at one another and debate their merits. Ideas are treated not as precious pearls to be polished, but as sparks born of friction. They ignite heat, iterations, and tough questions that propel and shape them further. It’s not an inquisition. But it’s exploration by interrogation. Experience has taught us what the geologists learned long ago: it takes pressure to make diamonds.


Greenhousing ideas: an alternative to brainstorming

Stop brainstorming, greenhouse your ideas

The ?What If! team has also developed a method. They call it greenhousing’ ideas.

What I like is that the method can be used easily with people who are unfamiliar with the structure—customers or employees who are not used to creative environments. As a facilitator leads the session, you can be sure that everyone will have the opportunity to contribute.

Unlike brainstorming, greenhousing focuses on building upon ideas, one after another.

The goal is to end up with actionable ideas. It emphasises on what the ?WhatIf! team calls ‘productive creativity’. Aware that coming up with ideas is just a piece of the car motor (to use Hamel’s imagery) your goal is to build something that you can implement. Questions like ‘How can we make it real?’ are essential in order to keep a foot in reality.

Greenhousing is based on teamwork. Here you need a small team—typically 3 participants and 1 facilitator. You want to limit the flow of information and foster collaboration.

I would recommend leveraging diversity. Gathering three participants who represent different stakeholders or areas of expertise—e.g. design, engineering, and strategy—is a good way to develop ideas that take into account all the challenges.

The Facilitator’s Role in Guiding Creativity

The facilitator leads the session. Their role is to help the team to ‘land an idea’. There is a focus on making the idea real:

– He needs to make sure that everyone is on the same page, regarding the brief — the problem to solve.
– He stimulates creativity by asking questions and ensures the team works on one idea at a time.
– He is in charge of capturing the idea, i.e. writing down details and making it as visual as possible.


If your company has some favorite frameworks, you can ask the facilitator to use them to guide the session. I think, for example, about Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas or Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-Done.

You’d rather come prepared. Greenhousing requires participants to have done some research beforehand. There is no point working without an understanding of the market, the stakeholders, and the technology.

The goal is to build on actionable ideas.

Let’s see how Matt Kingdon, founder of ?What If!, summarises the process in The Science of Serendipity:

A useful innovator’s tool is to ‘greenhouse’ ideas. This means to force the growth of an idea by looking for what’s great about it, the DNA if you like, and building on that.


How to Implement It

Innovative capabilities are essential. Companies need to keep working on the next opportunities. Implementing a method that makes the most of your team’s creativity is therefore crucial.

It helps your team to deal with problems more quickly.

My goal in introducing these three alternatives to brainstorming is to make it easier for your team to build actionable ideas.

You should not get stuck with a pile of Post-it notes. Instead, you will end up with enough detail to make it possible to execute the idea.

As Mark Payne wrote:

[An] idea is a powerful thing — but it’s just an idea. It’s a sketch before the painting. If it’s a big idea, it should have big insight behind it, big benefits in its realisation, and a compelling experience to deliver those benefits. But the truth is that an idea is rarely an answer. It’s usually a hunch wrapped in a bundle of unanswered strategic, operational, technical, and financial questions.

You now need to mix commercial analysis, design and experimentation to make your idea real, remarkable, and profitable. This will be the topic for another post.

Thanks to Kirsten Brown for reading drafts of this.


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